Manitoba's flood forecasters were too inexperienced for the mammoth task they faced in 2011. They worked 12- to 18-hour days without a break for more than three months in a cramped space, with inadequate information and employing a faulty forecasting model that failed to adequately take into account the effects of spring rains.
It was a recipe for failure.
Yet the team, whose members had between six months and three years on the job, produced "reasonable forecasts under trying circumstances" -- even though some of their predicted water levels erred on the high side, according to a long-awaited task force report on the 2011 flood.
The Manitoba 2011 Flood Review Report, 14 months in the making, was commissioned by the province to examine its response to what the task force said Friday was the largest and most severe flood in the province's recorded history.
The 156-page report -- one of two reviews of the historic flood issued on Friday -- contains 126 recommendations to government.
Its sweep is as broad as the waters that took three million acres out of cultivation and displaced 7,100 people -- some 2,000 of whom are still unable to return home.
"It was remarkable given all these dangerous circumstances that there was not one single direct loss of life as a result of the flood," said Harold Westdal, a certified management consultant who co-authored a companion report. "As far as we know there was not one person who went overnight without food or shelter (during the flood)."
What went wrong
The severity of the Assiniboine River flood and those of its tributaries seemed to catch flood forecasters by surprise in 2011. According to the report, the inexperienced team was using a "snowmelt" forecasting model that was unable to produce reliable runoff forecasts in the event of significant rain.
The team also lacked a data-management system for handling large volumes of rainfall data. The result was that staff frequently had to begin their day at 2 a.m. to ensure all the information was gathered and put into a useful format so they could meet daily flood-forecasting deadlines. Forecasters also lacked a proper operations centre in which to spread their papers and charts and easily consult one another.
In order to overcome the obstacles facing them, flood forecasters developed rainfall-runoff models "on the fly" for sub-watersheds in the Souris, Assiniboine and Red River basins. But eventually the combination of inexperience and a lack of resources "began taking their toll on the accuracy and reliability of the forecasts," the report said.
Apart from flood forecasting, the report concluded that more training is needed in local communities on the erection of sandbag dikes. In some cases, there was insufficient labour on hand to operate large sandbagging machines. At hearings, the task force heard complaints about a lack of timely flood information from the province to the public as well as to emergency management personnel. For some Manitobans, trust became a big issue. "In 2011, the information the government was distributing was changing daily, sometimes hourly, and often coming from different sources," the report said. It also found the Emergency Measures Organization was understaffed to deal with flood claims and other services.
The report recommends the government create a full-time operations centre with dedicated phones, computers and adequate space for flood forecasters to do their work. Forecasters also need a fully functional data acquisition and management system with sufficient professional and technical support. The province should also boost salaries to "attract qualified forecasters," the task force said.
In other areas, the report said several improvements and upgrades are needed to the Portage Diversion to ensure it's ready for large future floods. It said the Assiniboine River dikes between Portage la Prairie and Headingley need to be upgraded. And a permanent controlled "wasteway" or outlet channel from the Assiniboine River, east of Portage, should be built as a safety valve.
The report said the province should look into the feasibility of developing additional water storage along the Assiniboine, such as a new dam. It also recommended an examination of operating protocols at the Shellmouth Reservoir, near the Saskatchewan border, to prevent incessant flooding of farmland.
And it recommended a 24-hour dedicated television channel be established to provide up-to-date information on flood conditions, forecasts, road closures and emergency contact information.
The province's response
Steve Ashton, the cabinet minister responsible for flood preparation and flood fighting, said he will carefully consider the recommendations. He noted several recommendations -- along with others from a second volume released Friday on the regulation of Lake St. Martin and Lake Manitoba -- come with a high price tag. He said he will be briefing the premier and Manitoba's lead federal cabinet minister, Vic Toews, on the reports' contents.
Ashton defended the province's flood forecasters, saying anybody would have had difficulties coping with a flood of the magnitude of the 2011 event. "Let's not forget that when you have a historic flood, no matter what model you have, your experience just doesn't cover those kinds of scenarios," he told reporters.
Ashton said the province has enhanced flood forecasting this year by recruiting 90 volunteers throughout the province to measure the snowpack. It's also purchased new equipment that can be dispatched around the province to measure water flows. Some improvements have also been made to the Portage Diversion. And the province has beefed up its flood-forecasting team and staff.
The critics' reactions
Progressive Conservative MLA Blaine Pedersen (Midland) said the report shows Manitoba was ill-prepared for the 2011 flood, and it's still not prepared for a flood today.
For instance, he said the government has had two years to shore up dikes along the Assiniboine River -- which would reduce the need to send water to Lake Manitoba through the Portage Diversion -- but has failed to do so.
"They've had two years to do something and they've done nothing," Pedersen said.
Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard said the report revealed "a very regrettable lack of transition planning" in the flood-forecasting unit. When Alf Warkentin retired in 2010 after a four-decade career during which he became a household name in Manitoba, there was no senior forecaster groomed to take over, Gerrard said.